Saturday, December 5, 2009

Amazon Kindle 2 International Version Review - CNET


Pretty much everyone's talking about eBooks and eBook readers nowadays, this brand of devices managing to move from a fairly niche segment to mainstream status over a very short period of time. And the one device that begun this revolution by providing a comprehensive combo between an online content store and an actual physical device is Amazon's Kindle portable eBook reader, which was initially launched back in the second half of 2007.

Since then, the Kindle has undergone a major hardware overhaul, its second iteration, simply dubbed the Kindle 2, officially arriving in stores in February 2009. Furthermore, Amazon decided to launch a wider-format Kindle as well (the newspaper and magazine-oriented Kindle DX), but also to finally allow customers from other countries all over the world to enjoy this very interesting product, with the launch of the Kindle 2 International Version in October 2009.

Over the course of time, we've kept track of pretty much everything Amazon and its Kindle have achieved, so we obviously loved actually going hands-on with a Kindle 2 unit. Of course, since this is the first Kindle we tested (hopefully, not the last either), we weren't really able to carry out some comparative tests to the previous version, so what you'll read about as follows refers just to this incarnation of the device and that's pretty much it.

As usual, we won't go into too many details regarding the Kindle 2 in this introductory segment. We will point out, however, that there are a couple of specific areas where we've found this version to be slightly inferior to its US-only counterpart, most being related rather to the lack of support from local mobile carriers rather than something being wrong with the actual device.

Overall, the Kindle 2 experience was a very pleasant one, and we've really managed to see why Amazon hopes that it will become the “iPod of portable eBook readers.” Hopefully, you'll manage to see that as well, after going through our review.

Aesthetics and Design 
To tell you the truth, we really didn't know what to expect from Amazon's portable reader when taking it out of the box, given the fact that we had only seen it in pictures up until then. However, upon unboxing it, we had a very pleasurable surprise, since the Kindle 2 is, without a doubt, one of the most attractive, sleek and carefully designed products of this type available out there (on par with Sony's Reader family, which we also took for a significantly quicker spin back at IFA 2009).
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So, similar to the original Kindle, the dominant color in the case of the Kindle 2 is white, the reader's front side and buttons being manufactured out of a white, reinforced plastic material. However, the rear side of the reader is all brushed aluminum, which is in fact a very good choice, since it protects the device when placed on some surface, while also delivering an enhanced grip level. Moreover, it's quite “fingerprint-unfriendly,” which, as far as we're concerned, is always a very good thing.

And since we're on the issue of grip, it's also worth mentioning that the e-reader features a gray, rubber strip on the upper, rear side, which further enhances the device's level of stability while in use.

Now, while we'll refrain from going into more details regarding this thing's level of portability just now (but we'll get back to that right away), we feel compelled to tell you that the Kindle 2 has a very sturdy build (despite its more or less “flimsy” look), all the materials used having quite a good level of quality. In other words, we're talking about a sleek and elegant product, which will surely draw some attention while in use, besides providing quite an advanced level of functionality.

Size and portability

We promised you earlier a more detailed discussion about the Kindle's size and level of portability, so we'll start by providing you with the basic numbers, both in terms of dimensions - 8 x 5.3 x 0.36 inches (203.2mm x 134.6mm x 9.1mm) and weight - 10.2 ounces (289.2 grams).
However, if we stuck to simply offering you these figures, we would be sort of downplaying the actual level of portability provided by Amazon's device. Hence, upon first picking up the Kindle, we were astonished by just how lightweight this thing is, despite its fairly large size. Plus, as far as the dimensions are concerned, we can really say that, at least at a first look, this has almost the same thickness as an iPod or iPhone, albeit a much larger size.

Button and control options

Right from the start, we'll mention that the Kindle 2 doesn't come equipped with a touchscreen display, and, for this reason, all of its controls are analogue (in other words, control buttons and switches).
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The first and, obviously, most important button is the power switch, located on the top side of the device, and is one of the two metallic buttons on the device. The other metallic button is the Volume Control (up and down), located on the right side of the Kindle. All of the other control elements are the made from plastic, but that doesn't make using them any less pleasurable. Plus, they're all placed on the front side of the portable reader.

So, on the front/left side, we can find, from top to bottom, a Previous Page and a Next Page button, whose functionality is pretty clear. On the opposite side (across the screen, so to say), we can find yet another Next Page button, but also a Home button, whose purpose is to take users back to the Main Menu, from wherever they might be at the moment.

Beneath these buttons, we can find a triad of control elements, which, in fact, are extremely important for the overall functionality and control of the e-reader. So, what we've got here are a Menu button, a Back button and, finally, a tiny control stick (placed between the other two buttons and used for navigating through the various menus and the pages themselves) that also doubles as an “Enter” button when pressed.

The Kindle 2 also sports a full QWERTY keyboard, as well as a couple of other buttons (ALT, SYM, DEL, etc.), found right on the front side of the e-book reader. Apart from the “Space” key (which is a bit larger), all of the other keys are circular and roughly have the same size.
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What's interesting to mention is that, despite the fact that the keyboard looks very small and crammed up at first, that's really not the case, with the spacing between the keys being just right in order to prevent accidental activation (at the same time occupying a decent amount of space on the Kindle's body). In fact, typing on this keyboard is very easy to do, even people with larger fingers encountering little problem when adding some notes or searching for something.


Like most electronic devices arriving on the market nowadays, the Amazon Kindle 2 (international version) sports both physical and wireless connectivity options, the wireless ones being the most important, in this case (for this reason, we'll also leave them for last).

So, as far as the “physical” options are concerned, we're only talking about a 3.5-mm headphone jack (found on the top side, near the power switch), and a micro-USB port, found on the bottom side of the Kindle 2. This micro-USB (micro-B type) interface is used for connecting the eBook reader to a computer (for data transfers / charging) or to a special power adapter included in the package, just for recharging purposes.

As mentioned before, the connectivity options that really “matter” in the case of the Kindle 2 are found within its slim body, in the form of a built-in 3G (HSDPA) modem and an EDGE/GSM wireless module. They offer access to Amazon's Whispernet network (or its equivalent in other parts of the world), allowing users to connect to Amazon's online book shop (and the Internet in general) even when they're not in the immediate vicinity of a Wi-Fi hotspot or something of the kind.

In fact, this enhanced degree of freedom, self-sufficiency and mobility is what makes the Kindle 2 really stand out from the increasingly larger crowd of eBook readers that have arrived on the market over the past couple of months, most of which require a Wi-Fi connection or a USB connection / memory card for transferring data/files. With the Kindle 2, one will have no problems in searching, purchasing and reading a book pretty much wherever they might be, which is really something worth pointing out.

Oh, and did we mention that Internet access is completely free with the Kindle, with Amazon covering all of the usage costs?
Buy Amazon Kindle International Version Now

Display and speakers

Last, but certainly not least, we'll have to say a few words about the e-Ink display that represents pretty much the centerpiece of the Amazon Kindle 2. So, in strictly technical terms, we're talking about a 6-inch e-paper display, providing 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi, 16-level gray scale... but these are just figures, and, to tell you the truth, they don't reflect the actual shock one will feel when first taking a look at the Kindle's e-paper screen, especially if they have never laid their eyes on a similar solution before.

The idea here is that most of us are used to LCD or even OLED panels, which have a very high brightness level and, more importantly, a very high refresh rate. This is great when working, but when relaxing and reading a book, the last thing you'd wanna use is a solution that takes a serious toll on your eyes.

However, the e-Ink e-paper display is quite different, since the refresh rate is far from fantastic, one actually being able to “see” just how quick pages are refreshed. At first, this might look like a negative feature, but for long-time users, it will prove extremely useful, since it will keep their eyes “fresh” and ready for more content.

As you might have noticed from the Kindle 2 photos, the portable e-Book reader also sports a couple of speakers, installed on the rear, lower side. If you're wondering just why an e-Reader requires speakers, the answer is a fairly simple one – because it's also able to play music and, more importantly, read text out loud, via voice synthesizer software. But given the fact that the audio playback is fairly limited, the same can be said about the quality of the built-in speakers, which are not exactly the best you've ever encountered.

Tech facts
In general, within our tech facts section, we talk about a certain product’s technical specifications, as they're provided by the manufacturer. However, in the case of the Amazon Kindle 2 International Edition, we're about to make a slight exception, namely the fact that, besides the specs list provided by Amazon itself, we'll also offer you some additional info on what the e-Reader has on the inside, in terms of hardware.

Official Kindle 2 spec list by Amazon

Display: 6-inch diagonal E Ink electronic paper display, 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi, 16-level gray scale;

Size (in inches): 8 x 5.3 x 0.36 inches (203.2mm x 134.6mm x 9.1mm).

Weight: 10.2 ounces (289.2 grams).

System Requirements: None, because it's wireless and doesn't require a computer. Check wireless coverage.

Storage: 2GB internal (approximately 1.4GB available for user content).

Battery Life: Read on a single charge for up to one week with wireless on. Turn wireless off and read for up to two weeks. Battery life will vary based on wireless usage, such as shopping the Kindle Store and downloading content. In low-coverage areas or in EDGE/GPRS-only coverage, wireless usage will consume battery power more quickly.

Charge Time: Fully charges in approximately four hours via the included U.S. power adapter. Also, it supports charging from your computer via the included USB 2.0 cable.

Connectivity: HSDPA modem (3G) with a fallback to EDGE/GPRS; utilizes Amazon Whispernet to provide wireless coverage via AT&T's 3G high-speed data network in the U.S. and partner networks outside of the U.S. See Wireless Terms and Conditions.

USB Port: USB 2.0 (micro-B connector) for connection to the Kindle U.S. power adapter or optionally to connect to a PC or Macintosh computer.

Audio: 3.5mm stereo audio jack, rear-mounted stereo speakers.

Content Formats Supported: Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion.

Included Accessories: U.S. power adapter (supports 100V-240V), USB 2.0 cable, rechargeable battery. Book cover sold separately.

Documentation: Quick Start Guide (included in box) [PDF]; Kindle User's Guide (pre-installed on device) [PDF]. Additional information in multiple languages available online.

Additional information by iSuppli and iFixit

As promised, we'll also provide you with some additional information regarding the Kindle 2's hardware configuration, this time obtained from famous market research company iSuppli, which carried out a breakdown of the Kindle's components while also revealing more than Amazon was willing to admit in the process. Corroborating this info is this break-down by iFixit, which took a very close look inside the Kindle 2.
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So, what iSuppli's study reveals is that the Kindle features a wireless broadband module from Novatel Wireless, as well as a multimedia application processor coming from Freescale (MCIMX31LVKN5C M91E CTAH0850 - 532 MHz, ARM-11 90nm 14mm package).

Additionally, the device sports a 32MB mobile DDR SDRAM chip manufactured by Samsung, as well as a 2 GB moviNAND package (pertaining to the aforementioned Korean company). Also worth noting is that the Kindle packs a 3.7 V, 1530 mAh lithium polymer battery, on whose overall functioning time we'll comment a bit more in the near future.

Real-life performance

Overall functionality, setup and menu navigation

We've talked enough about just what we might expect from the Kindle 2 in terms of design and hardware components, so it's about time to see just how they blend with the software in order to create an encompassing reading experience.

We've decided to divide this section into a couple of different segments in order to provide some sort of differentiation between the functions and features the Kindle 2 is able to provide. However, we'll have to point out that, in reality, all of these functions are linked quite tightly and seamlessly, passing from one function (reading a book, for example) to another (like searching a word from the text on the built-in dictionary or Wikipedia).

When one first switches on the Kindle, the first screen they'll be presented with is a nice photo of a person underneath a tree, followed by a quick explanation of the meaning of the word “kindle.” From there, users will be taken to the main menu, where they'll be provided with a list of the items available for reading, whether we're talking about actual books, “clippings” (excerpts from books selected and copied by the user), online newspapers, etc. Moreover, also from the main menu, they'll be able to start searching for words from the “New Oxford American Dictionary” or access the device's settings and experimental features.

The device's main menu allows users to easily search books following certain parameters, including Author, Title and location. When selecting a certain eBook, numerous options are provided, as readers will be able to either start reading the respective text, move to a certain location within it, read a short description of the respective book, or even search through it. Ultimately, the book can be easily removed from the device.

Navigating the menus should prove to be an easy enough task, carried out via the “Next Page,” “Previous page,” “Menu” and “Back” buttons found on the Kindle 2. While we won't go into more details regarding this particular issue right now, we'll just say that one should get accustomed to the Kindle 2's overall control and navigation system pretty quickly, since it is, indeed, quite user-friendly.

As we've mentioned above, one will be able to easily access the settings menu from the main page. Here, they can switch the wireless connection on or off (in fact, this particular option is available from pretty much every single menu) and edit some registration-related data. So, for example, the user and device's names can be easily changed, and the same goes for the owner's personal information or the e-mail address used for automatic file conversion and transfer to the Kindle.

Now, this brings us to another important issue we were keen on tackling, namely that of file support. At least theoretically, one shouldn't have any file compatibility issues if they decide to only purchase e-books from Amazon. But what if you decide to load some of the free e-books available online onto the Kindle 2, or even other file types? Well, in this case, things get a bit complicated.

Besides the AZW format, the Kindle 2 also supports, natively, TXT files, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI and PRC files. However, in order to view HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP files, a conversion process is required, typically involving using Amazon's own conversion service (via the e-mail address attached to every Kindle).

Up until recently, the latter case applied to PDF files as well, but given just how popular this file format is on the Internet, Amazon has decided to up the ante a bit and, within its latest firmware update, added a native PDF reader to the Kindle software. Unfortunately, we've tested the Kindle prior to this update actually becoming available, so we'll just have to applaud Amazon for this decision and move on to the next segment of the review.

Purchasing and reading e-Books and e-newspapers (e-magazines)

Quite obviously, reading e-books and e-newspapers is the most important feature the Kindle 2 has to offer (after all, this is what the e-reader was built for), and this is exactly what we'll deal with as follows.
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Now, naturally, before actually being able to read a book, you'll have to purchase it, and in order to do so, you'll have to access Amazon's online book store. Luckily, as we've mentioned before, doing so should be a task pretty easy to do, since the Amazon store is available directly from the Kindle 2 (the “Shop in Kindle Store” option can be accessed by pressing the Menu button from pretty much wherever you might “be” within the device's menus).

After entering the store, you'll be able to choose exactly the type of content you want to shop fore (Books, Newspapers or Magazines) and you'll be provided with an extensive list of results. Of course, it's a good idea to narrow the search results by selecting the particular genre you're interested in.

After you've decided on a certain title, you'll be able to get some additional info on the book (as for example, the original publishing date, number of printed pages, ranking within the Amazon Store, etc.) and, more importantly, you'll be able to “order” a sample for downloading and storing onto your Kindle. Of course, the sample is limited, but it's typically enough to help you make up your mind on whether to purchase the book or not (which you can always do at a later date).

As far as newspapers are concerned, Amazon is offering a fairly wide selection, but consisting mostly of titles from western countries (very few international ones). When opting for a certain newspaper, users can either purchase the current issue or make a subscription to receive each issue on a daily basis. Pretty much the same scenario applies to magazines, the main difference being the fact that pricing for magazines is typically higher than in the case of simple newspapers.

Now that we're done with the purchasing process, it's time to talk about just what reading an e-material (whether we're talking about an e-book, newspaper or magazine) implies. So, after purchasing such an item from the Amazon store, it will be displayed on the first page of the Kindle 2, where you'll be able to easily access it (simply move the cursor and click on it).

As in the case of a paperback or hardback books, you'll first be provided with the book's cover (just in grayscale, sadly, but that's one of the few limitations imposed by e-paper technology), followed by the actual content. Moving between pages is done via the “Next Page” and “Previous Page” the Kindle 2 comes equipped with, while one will also be provided with several useful navigation options, such as the possibility to check out the table of contents, move directly to the beginning of the book or to a specific location, sync to the furthest page read, read a short description of the book or search it.

Some of the most interesting features available here are the possibility to search for a certain word within the text or to add bookmarks, notes or highlights, which are saved to a special location called “My Notes and Marks.” Highlighting a piece of text is quite an easy task, carried out via the control stick.

One can also easily add notes while reading a certain book by simply moving the cursor to the place in the text where they want to add a note and starting to type on the built-in keyboard. Of course, don't expect some complex word editor, but this feature is quite useful for making some annotations to one's texts (especially when talking about some text-book used for academic purposes).

Also, if you're not quite sure about the meaning of a certain word, you'll be able to easily search for it either via the “New Oxford American Dictionary” we've mentioned above or by using Google or Wikipedia. The last two are particularly interesting, but we'll refrain from commenting more on this issue here, since we've got a whole chapter dedicated to Internet-related features coming right up.

Anyway, back to e-book reading. So, if you've decided to search for a certain word within the dictionary, you'll be provided with a short definition right on the page you'll be reading at that moment, and if that doesn't prove to be satisfactory, you'll always be able to access the full dictionary entry by simply selecting “more” from the menu.”

Before moving on to other matters, we'll also have to say a few things about the overall reading experience provided by the Kindle 2. Without a doubt, the eInk e-paper display is worth every dime, since it really manages to mimic the feeling of reading a book to a very high degree, taking only a minimum toll on one's eyes. Plus, this type of display solution requires only a minimum amount of power in order to work, which is one of the reasons why the Kindle's battery is able to last for so long.

Internet browsing

Since it packs a 3G module, the Kindle 2 is also Internet enabled. Unfortunately, this Internet connectivity is somewhat dependent on the area where the user finds himself/herself at a certain moment, since, in our area of the world, the web-browser installed on the Kindle 2 International Version didn't really work. Unfortunately, the same applied for the Google search option.

On the other hand, the Amazon Store worked flawlessly, the pages loading up without any significant delays. Also, strange enough, Wikipedia worked quite fine as well, albeit there was somewhat of a problem with the photos (on the other hand, the Kindle user guide does warn us that pages containing a lot of photos might have some issues).

The web-browser built within the Kindle is rather basic, but offers quite a few interesting navigation-related options, such as the possibility to clear the cookies, cache and browsing history but also to enable/disable JavaScript and images. To tell you the truth, if you're looking for a device that will let you browse the web on the go, you'll have to look past Amazon's Kindle 2, but this browser might prove to be an interesting side-tool, in certain situations.

Experimental features

We've already covered one of the Kindle 2's experimental features above (the basic web browser), so now we'll talk about the remaining two, namely the text-to-speech technology and the MP3 player, both of which make use of the e-reader's built-in speakers.

The Text-to-Speech function can be activated (for the books that actually support it, because, due to certain copyright issues, some of the books available from Amazon don't support this function) by holding down the “Shift” key and pressing the “SYM” key to start/stop playing.

Much to our surprise, the voice rendering is actually pretty good, a lot better than we'd expected it, anyway. Of course, some people might find it a little... robotic, but, then again, we must not forget the fact that this is not an audio book read by a real person, but just an advanced software. As far as the power of the voice rendering is concerned, the built-in speakers manage to rise up to the task quite well.

Another experimental feature provided by the Kindle 2 is MP3 playback. In order to enjoy some music while reading their favorite book, users will have to first transfer the respective songs into the “music” folder on the device (by connecting the e-book reader to a computer via USB), then hold the ALT key and press Shift to either start or stop the playback process, while F skips to the next track.

We've tried that as well, but, honestly, the result was far from impressive. I mean, sure, one will be able to “hear” the song, but enjoying it... well, that's a whole different story. As far as we're concerned, it's better to opt for a pair of headphones in this case rather than use the built-in speakers.

Battery life

Battery life is also a major issue with the Kindle, since, as we've mentioned before, the eInk e-paper display requires a lot less energy than a normal one (which should translate into a longer functioning life).

Initially, Amazon claimed that the Kindle 2 should work for around one week with the wireless module switched on and for up to two weeks with the wireless switched off. Then, via the firmware update mentioned above, battery life with the 3G module on was allegedly pushed to around seven days.

Now, since we tested the Kindle 2 prior of this upgrade, we'll only be able to relay you the data gathered under these conditions. So, in our case, the Kindle 2 worked for around 3.5 days with the 3G module switched on and for around 12 days without ever going wireless. As far as we're concerned, that's pretty impressive.


The good

- very cool design;
- impressive eInk e-paper display;
- user-friendly control system;
- integrated access to the Amazon online book store, Wikipedia, Google;
- text-to-speech technology;
- built-in web-browser;
- support for MP3 playback;
- built-in PDF reader (via the latest firmware update);
- possibility to make notes in the text;
- possibility to search for certain words in the built-in dictionary or online.

The bad

- sub-par built-in speakers;
- some problems related to Internet connectivity outside of the United States;
- relatively poor file format support;
- certain problems in displaying photo-rich websites;
- some users might have an issue with the built-in keyboard.

Overall impressions

In the first section of the review, we promised to try and show you just why Amazon might have a point when considering its Kindle 2 as a prime candidate for the title of “the iPod of portable e-book readers.” As you've been able to see, the device does bear some similarities to Apple's product, featuring an attractive, well-finished and elegant design, a very good level of integration with an online store (despite the fact that the available content is not exactly as affordable as the songs available via iTunes).

The eInk e-paper display is, without a doubt, the main selling point this product has to offer, since it's a lot less tiresome for one's eyes than an LCD or OLED display, for example. Also, this display requires less power in order to work, which translates into a longer functioning life, but users who've never laid eyes on an e-paper solution might have some problems getting accustomed to it.

The only question that remains to be answered is that related to its actual value. Now, if you really like reading (especially if you're a “power-reader”), then spending a couple of hundred dollars on the Kindle 2 will certainly be one of the best things you have ever done, given the enhanced reading experience it provides. Otherwise, I guess you might find a better use for your money.

Sales package

- Kindle 2 International version;
- USB cable (with micro-USB port at one end);
- USB – mains power adapter;
- User's manual.
Buy Amazon Kindle International Version Now

Credits:: CNET

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